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"Kid, any day a war ends is a nice day."
-- Kirk Douglas, The Hook
Kirk Douglas captured the U.S.' ambivalent attitude toward war in just one line of dialogue in The Hook, a tense 1963 drama. Some critics might have suggested that the line did that better than the entire film, a drama about three soldiers ordered to kill a prisoner of war during the last days of the Korean conflict. But the film still captures the moral ambiguities of one of the country's most controversial military actions while also providing Douglas with another strong entry for his gallery of conflicted action heroes.
Adapted from the French novel L'Hamecon, which literally means "The Fishing Hook," the film was a rarity for the producing-directing team of William Perlberg and George Seaton. During their 25 year professional relationship -- it started when Seaton wrote the Columbia Pictures comedy The Doctor Takes a Wife (1940) -- they had focused primarily on bringing Seaton's own scripts to the screen. Starting with Diamond Horseshoe in 1945, Seaton had added directing to his credits, inspired by director John Stahl's advice that the only way to protect his scripts was to direct them himself. Through the rest of the '40s, the two collaborated on lighter fare, with Seaton winning an Oscar® for his script for Miracle on 34th Street (1947). With the '50s, they started producing more serious pictures, including Seaton's second Oscar®-winning screenplay, for The Country Girl (1954). They even took a stab at military drama, pairing William Holden and Deborah Kerr for The Proud and the Profane (1956). With only one war picture behind them, they turned to another expert in the field, Henry Denker, to adapt Vahe Katcha's novel to the screen. Denker had previously scored with another Korean War drama, Time Limit, a Broadway success he had adapted to the screen in 1957.
When he signed on for The Hook, Douglas was badly in need of a hit, something he hadn't had since Spartacus (1960). He even tried a little self-promotion while making the film, in his own words doing "what the big movie stars do" (Douglas, The Ragman's Son) by renting a yacht to take some friends on a jaunt to the film's location off Catalina Island. Unfortunately, the ship hit rough waters, sending most of the passengers to the railings to lose their last meals, which should have served as a warning to him.
Nonetheless, Douglas invested the performance with his usual intensity. He also helped Perlberg and Seaton make two very astute casting choices, campaigning for his friend Nick Adams and newcomer Robert Walker, Jr. to play the two younger soldiers whose response to the order to kill their prisoner provides much of the film's drama. Adams was coming off a successful run as Johnny Yuma in the hit television series The Rebel and entertained cast and crew with his impersonation of Douglas, which was so good even the star enjoyed it. Walker, the son of film stars Robert Walker and Jennifer Jones, had only been seen in three television guest shots when Seaton cast him in his screen debut. He would continue in the business for decades, most notably as the mutant teen in the classic Star Trek episode "Charlie X," before leaving the business to run a gallery in Malibu.
One of the film's most notable elements was its score, written and performed by harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler. The musician had popularized the instrument in the '30s and '40s, inspiring classical composers like Darius Milhaud and Ralph Vaughn Williams to write pieces for him. Although he had re-located to England in the '50s because of the blacklist, he occasionally composed for American films after scoring a huge hit with the 1953 British comedy Genevieve. That picture brought him an Oscar® nomination, although he was not credited in the U.S. and was not entered in the Academy®'s records until the '80s.
The Hook opened to indifferent reviews, with Variety's dubbing it "a film ideally suited to the cinematic tastes of war action buffs, but disappointing for the more discerning customer." The best notices went to Filipino actor Enrique Magalona, cast as the Korean POW, a performance in which he spoke only a few words, none of them in English. It would be another year before Douglas scored a solid hit, with Seven Days in May (1964).
Producer: William Perlberg
Director: George Seaton
Screenplay: Henry Denker
Based on the novel L'Hamecon by Vahe Katcha
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Hans Peters
Music: Larry Adler
Principal Cast: Kirk Douglas (Sgt. P.J. Briscoe), Robert Walker, Jr. (Pvt. O.A. Dennison), Nick Adams (Pvt. V.R. Hackett), Enrique Magalona (The Prisoner), Nehemiah Persoff (Capt. Van Ryan), Mark Miller (Lt. D.D. Troy).
BW-98m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller